M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’S Greatest Spymaster
Henry Hemming (Preface, £20)
This meticulously researched biography reads like a cross between a spy novel and a social history. Almost everyone gets a walk-on part, from the great spy writers John le carré and Derek Tangye to cambridge communists and mosleyite Fascists. it deals with really significant events—the build-up to the second World War, the constant threats from extremists of the left and right and the need for constant vigilance to avoid our democracy being undermined— but it does so in such a gripping and vivid way that it doesn’t feel the least bit like reading history.
At the centre of the story is the eccentric spymaster, maxwell Knight, the original ‘m’, whose real passion in life was the menagerie of exotic animals he had kept and studied from boyhood, which, by the end of the book, you almost believe were role models for the secret agents he controlled, guided and manipulated. As a child, he kept lizards, mice, rats, hedgehogs, slow worms and a variety of birds, with which he developed an intuitive understanding. in the 1930s, he kept a bushbaby, a parrot, several grass snakes and a bear in his london flat.
in the 1950s, Knight became one of the most prolific early broadcasters on radio and television. Alongside Peter scott and David Attenborough, he brought wildlife to the public in panel shows such as Animal, Vegetable and Mineral?. in between, he recruited and ran dozens of spies, at first to infiltrate the Fascists and then the communists, who constantly threatened Britain’s security, brilliantly encouraging them to endure their dangers and calming their fears. it’s impossible not to conclude that his observations of animal behaviour helped him to understand and empathise with them.
This is a cracking read, which both informs and entertains in equal measure. Robin Hanbury-tenison
Maxwell Knight with his favourite pet, Goo the cuckoo
Olga Gray, or ‘Miss X’, the secretary who brought down a Soviet spy ring